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Is Mathematics an Illusion? Lawrence Krauss and Cormac McCarthy Discuss

McCarthy asked, "Would mathematics be here if we weren't?"

In December, physicist and author Lawrence Krauss interviewed the late American novelist Cormac McCarthy, who died on June 13th at the age of 89 in Santa Fe, N.M. McCarthy is famous for his remarkable fictional works like The Road and Blood Meridian, but he was also deeply fascinated with mathematics and science. Apparently, he enjoyed reading science more than he did fiction!

He moved to Santa Fe from El Paso to be closer to the Santa Fe Institute, a science think tank where McCarthy would spend time speaking with various physicists, scientists, and mathematicians. His latest two novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris, are about a brother and sister who are both brilliant mathematicians.

Towards the beginning of the interview, Krauss offhandedly asks why math “works.” McCarthy responded by saying “it’s a good question,” then added: “Would mathematics be here if we weren’t?”

Math: Merely Human Made?

They go on to discuss whether humans “made” math or whether math was waiting for us to discover it. The conversation reminded me immediately of the work of philosopher of science Stephen Meyer, as well as Dr. Melissa Cain Travis, who have written extensively on the “comprehensibility of the universe.” Drawing from ancient and medieval views, math works because it corresponds to actual laws and properties in nature. Mathematical models may be either accurate or inaccurate, but Krauss wonders how math should ever manage to describe physical reality.

McCarthy, interestingly enough, said that humans merely invented math, and that it gives an illusion of there being an actual structure in the world itself. Krauss agreed that math is a human invention, but then added, “It’s really surprising that it’s a human invention but that happens to be the right language to describe nature.” In search of common ground, Krauss added that he doesn’t think that “the world is mathematics.”

They also go on to discuss evolution in some length, as well, with McCarthy admitting to a kind of materialism (although his characters frequently wrestle with the “God question”) and Krauss emphasizing adamantly that evolution is completely undirected. I’m interested in how Krauss reconciles math’s accuracy in depicting nature with this notion of an entirely unguided process.

In any case, the conversation is well worth watching, and shows some of the tensions and questions within the materialistic framework. The novels of Cormac McCarthy are some of the very best in the American literary canon and are well worth the time, too.

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Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories and has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and is the Writer and Editor for Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture.

Is Mathematics an Illusion? Lawrence Krauss and Cormac McCarthy Discuss